As expected, the extraordinary European Council agreed to kick the battered Brexit can a little further down the road and extend the UK’s membership of the EU to 31 October. This decision ensures that the UK will not leave the EU with no deal this week, but it raises more questions about how the country continues to prepare for such an outcome.
Despite the delay, a no deal exit is still very much on the table – either on 31 May, if the UK does not take part in European Parliament elections, or on 31 October. Preparation may slow down, but it cannot stop entirely – and if the Government doesn’t provide clarity then public bodies, businesses and people around the country won’t know what they need to do to prepare.
Immediately after the Article 50 extension was confirmed, Defra began updating its online guidance to show 31 October as the new potential date for a no deal exit. And the head of the Foreign Office confirmed that his department was returning to normal work patterns, having been on a crisis footing to support British citizens in other EU countries.
But other government departments have not been so upfront about what the extension means for their no deal planning. Are there still soldiers in a bunker under Whitehall, ready to spring into action? Will contraflow arrangements on the M20 remain in place until 31 May, or 31 October, or will they be removed this weekend?
Government departments are not the only organisations dealing with uncertainty about what this extension means. As Carolyn Fairbairn of the CBI has warned, some businesses are “burning money” trying to prepare for a no deal exit and know that they cannot ramp down their planning. Does the Government expect them to keep spending on warehouse space, for example, for another six months?
Individuals are also left with questions. Will they still be able to use their mobile phone in the EU without extra roaming charges? Should they bother getting an international driving permit for their trip to the EU in June?
The extension of Article 50 has not resolved the complexity of no deal, it has just pushed it into the middle distance. In doing so, it creates the risk that people either slow down their preparations when they shouldn’t, or continue to spend money preparing for something that might never happen.
Businesses and the public should not be left to read between the lines of individual departmental press notices or from where departments are deploying their staff. The Prime Minister, who chairs the Cabinet Committee responsible for overseeing no deal preparation, needs to make a clear statement of the basis on which Government is now planning: what activities are being stood down and which will continue? Otherwise, the confusion, waste and uncertainty of recent weeks will just be prolonged for another six months.